By Soeren Kern
October 21, 2014
The Austrian government has unveiled a sweeping overhaul of the country's century-old "Islam Law" that governs the legal status of Austria's Muslim community.
The proposed revisions—which are aimed at cracking down on Islamic extremism in Austria—would regulate the training and hiring of Muslim clerics, prohibit the foreign funding of mosques, and establish an official German-language version of the Koran, among other changes.
The government says the modifications would give Muslims legal parity with other religious groups in Austria. But the leaders of Austria's Muslim community counter that the contemplated new law amounts to "institutionalized Islamophobia."
The updated Islam Law (Islamgesetz) was presented as a draft bill to parliament on October 2 and overhauls the current law, which dates back to 1912.
The original law was brought into being to help integrate Muslim soldiers into the Habsburg Army after the Austro-Hungarian Empire annexed Bosnia-Herzegovina in 1908. The law recognized Islam as a religious community in Austria, and allowed Muslims to practice their religion in accordance with the laws of the state.
After the Austro-Hungarian Empire collapsed in the aftermath of World War I, the number of Muslims in Austria was reduced to just a few hundred people. After World War II, however, Austria's Muslim population increased rapidly with the arrival of "guest workers" from Turkey and the Balkans in the 1960s, and refugees from Bosnia in the 1990s.
The Muslim population in Austria now exceeds 500,000 (or roughly 6% of the total population), up from an estimated 150,000 (or 2%) in 1990. The Muslim population is expected to reach 800,000 (or 9.5%) by 2030, according to recent estimates.
Official statistics show that nearly 60% of the inhabitants of Vienna, the capital and largest city of Austria, are immigrants or foreigners.
The massive demographic and religious shift underway in Austria, traditionally a Roman Catholic country, appears irreversible. In Vienna, for example, Muslim students now outnumber Catholic students at middle and secondary schools. Muslim students are also on the verge of overtaking Catholics in Viennese elementary schools.
At the same time, Austria has emerged as a major base for radical Islam. A June 2014 report by the Austrian intelligence agency [BVT] warned of the "exploding radicalization of the Salafist scene in Austria." Salafism is an anti-Western ideology that seeks to impose Islamic Sharia law.
Austria has also emerged as a central hub for European jihadists seeking to fight in Syria, because Austria's geographic location provides easy access to land routes through the Balkans.
The Austrian Islamist known as "Abu Hamza al-Austria," fighting in Syria, pictured from his jihadist recruitment video.
In an interview with Austrian Public Radio Ö1-Morgenjournal, the Austrian Minister for Integration and Foreign Affairs, Sebastian Kurz, said the rapid rise of Islam in Austria has rendered the old Islam Law obsolete. A new law is needed, he said, to stipulate more clearly the rights and responsibilities of Muslims living in the country.
From now on, according to Kurz, Muslims residing in Austria will be expected to adhere to Austrian values and to acknowledge the primacy of Austrian law over Islamic Sharia law. In practice, he said, this means that Muslims would be prohibited from citing Islamic law as legal justification for ignoring or disobeying Austrian civil laws. Sharia law has "no place" in Austria, he stressed.
The new law would regulate at least a dozen separate issues, including relatively non-controversial matters such as Muslim holidays, Muslim cemeteries, Muslim dietary practices and the activities of Muslim clergy in hospitals, prisons and the army.
More significantly, however, the bill seeks to limit the religious and political influence of foreign governments within the Austrian Muslim community by prohibiting foreign countries—presumably Turkey, Saudi Arabia and the Arab Gulf states—from financing Islamic centers and mosques in Austria.
The legislation also seeks to prevent the growth of a parallel Islamic society in Austria by regulating mosques and requiring clerics to be trained exclusively at Austrian universities. The new law would require Muslim groups to terminate the employment of clerics who have criminal records or who are deemed to pose a threat to public safety.
The new restrictions—including an employment ban for foreign clerics in Austria—would apply especially to Turkey: 65 of the 300 Muslim clerics working in Austria are Turkish civil servants whose salaries are being paid for by the Turkish government's Religious Affairs Directorate, the Diyanet.
Muslims leaders in Austria say that in the absence of foreign funding, many mosques in Austria would have to be "closed immediately" because they are not financially viable apart from outside support. Moreover, they argue, the prohibition of foreign funding violates the constitution because the same restrictions are not being applied to Christians or Jews.
The foreign funding restrictions, however, do not appear to apply to the Vienna-based King Abdullah International Center for Inter-Religious and Inter-Cultural Dialogue. Critics say the multi-million-dollar institution, which was inaugurated in November 2012, is an effort by Saudi Arabia to establish a permanent "propaganda centre" in central Europe from which to spread the anti-Western Wahhabi sect of Islam throughout the rest of Europe.
The new Islam Law also requires the Austrian Muslim community to agree on a standardized German-language translation of the Koran, the Hadiths and other Islamic religious texts. The government has argued that an official version of the texts would prevent their "misinterpretation" by Islamic extremists.
"There are countless translations, countless interpretations," Kurz told public radio Ö1. "We will be pushing for this vigorously. It is also in the interest of the Muslim community that words are correctly interpreted and reproduced."
However, Muslim leaders say it would be next to impossible for Sunnis, Shiites and Alawites to agree on a "correct" translation of the Koran. In any event, they say, the state cannot outlaw alternative translations.
A group called Muslim Youth of Austria [MJÖ] has described the new Islam Law as an "intolerable legal scandal" that seeks to "place the broad mainstream of Muslims either under state supervision, or to split them into weak and therefore meaningless groups."
The president of the Austrian Islamic Community [IGGiÖ], Fuat Sanac, says the new law is "naïve" and treats Muslims as "second-class" citizens: "We do not agree with the draft Islam Law. It was presented to the public without our approval."
Sanac has vowed to file an appeal with Austria's constitutional court to stop the new law, which he says "risks humiliating" the country's Muslim population.
Kurz maintains that the primary purpose of the new Islam Law is to establish the "primacy of national law over religious law."
The government hopes the new law will be approved by Parliament in November and enter into force sometime in 2015. However, Muslim opposition to the initiative may mean that the 1912 version of the law will remain unchanged for the foreseeable future.
Soeren Kern is a Senior Fellow at the New York-based Gatestone Institute. He is also Senior Fellow for European Politics at the Madrid-based Grupo de Estudios Estratégicos / Strategic Studies Group.